Brian’s Note: My son Joel is a 34 year old 2nd-round student studying conflict resolution at Portland State University in Oregon. On Saturday, he went to an all day event that featured the Dalai Lama. Here is his report.
The Dalai Lama was amazing and everything I could have hoped for: warm, intelligent, modest and thoughtful. And funny. The venue was a sold out auditorium of 11,000. He began at 9:30 am in a panel discussion with two prominent environmental activists and Gov. Kitzhaber, who also really impressed me.
They talked about the environment, and identified our nation’s (and the worldwide) culture of endless, ever-expanding consumption as the root of the issue, with nods to the political realities of trying to re-engineer a currently existing economy towards a more sustainable model. The Dalai Lama mentioned how he speaks to scientists all over the world to get an idea of the latest understanding and technologies, but was quick to defer to experts on specifics, citing his lack of knowledge. He also spoke on income disparity, and how after a certain point, more money does nothing to increase your happiness, because it does nothing to address core human needs, and can actively work against you. He even went as far as to say that he was a Socialist and an economic Marxist, but that those ideologies cannot work without guaranteed and real freedom as an indispensable part of that framework.
The panel ran for two hours, until 11:30am. There was a 2 hour lunch break and then the event reconvened for another 2 hours. First, director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream, and the upcoming Noah) spoke for perhaps 15 minutes on his personal experiences with environmental advocacy.
Then the Dalai Lama spoke for about an hour and a half on the topic of compassion. He began with an interesting argument. He started by pointing out that all of the world’s major religions have compassion and love as their defining message, and pointed to the many people that all of the major religious traditions have produced who have used it as inspiration to devote their lives to compassion and the good of humanity. He was careful to differentiate between religion and religious institutions, saying it was the latter that was susceptible to corruption, and therefore it is the institutions that drive people away, but that generally that people don’t tend to have a problem with most core tenets, but that also as human understanding advances, it is critical that religion adapt itself, and not become mired in tradition or dogma when they clash with reality. Throughout, he was big on practicality and realism.
Then (and this is where it got really interesting to me), he addressed compassion in people who “aren’t interested” in religion, noting that, of the 7 billion people on this planet, as many as 1 billion may be formally non-believers. He said that secularism is just as much a valid part of the human experience as religion, and that non-believers are also known to devote their lives to compassion and service to humanity, just as religious people do. He talked about how we are social animals, and that none of us could have survived our infancy without parental love and care, and how it is a vital part of humanity that we all crave, along with many other mammals.
Therefore – and he stressed this point – compassion is a biological function deeper than any religious belief. Religion supports compassionate thought and action, but is by no means necessary for them. It was perhaps the most powerful justification for secularism I have ever come across and I was somewhat shocked to hear it coming from a major religious figure.
He also spoke on how compassion and forgiveness can be difficult, but they cultivate inner strength and discipline, and lead to a strong sense of self, but which require being in the world and engaging in social interactions. Along the same lines, material goods are nice, but their relentless pursuit and acquisition are ultimately isolating and unfulfilling. That strong sense of self and inner values are healthy for the mind, and allow us to achieve happiness as well as encouraging physical health.
The Dalai Lama’s English was good, but his accent was heavier than I expected and he kept a translator by his side for help with particular words and phrases.
All in all, I was pretty blown away. I don’t know if I buy into the idea that he is the reincarnated spirit of the previous 13 Dalai Lamas – he didn’t address that at all – but he is clearly an exceptional and frankly beautiful human being.
Following his talk, there was a 15 minute break to rearrange the stage, and then the Red Hot Chili Peppers (of all groups) put on an hour long concert. I was never particularly a fan, but I always liked them well enough, certainly to the point that I was going to jump on the chance to see them live as part of a ticket I had already bought. (I didn’t know they or Darren Aronofsky or Gov. Kitzhaber were even going to be there until I got in the building and saw the program.) They put on a good show, and have had enough major hits over the years that I knew every other song or so quite well. I must say, if you had asked me when I first started hearing them in middle school which band out then would still be kicking around and doing quite well, they would probably not have even made the list, but I enjoyed the show nonetheless.